WORCESTER, MA – The Massachusetts Nurses Association, on behalf of the 700 striking nurses of St. Vincent Hospital, today filed the eighth in a series of charges of unfair labor practices against Dallas-based Tenet Healthcare with the National Labor Relations Board in response to the multi-billion-dollar corporation’s efforts to coerce, intimidate and retaliate against the nurses to undermine their legal right to advocate for safer working conditions. The development comes on the day the strike, at 177 days, becomes the longest nurses strike in Massachusetts history, as well as the longest nurses strike nationally in over 15 years.
“To date we have charged Tenet with a total of eight unfair labor practices that allege unlawful threats against nurses for striking or engaging in strike related activities, retaliation and discrimination against striking nurses for engaging in the strike and strike related activities, and rewarding non-striking nurses with preferred assignments in return for their refusal to honor the strike,” said Marlena Pellegrino, RN, longtime nurse at the hospital and co-chair of the nurses local bargaining unit with the Massachusetts Nurses Association. “These charges are extremely serious as they allege significant unlawful interference in the strike, and extremely troublesome behavior by hospital management.”
The announcement of the charges comes the day after a scathing news report detailing heart-wrenching stories by patients and staff inside the hospital about deplorable patient care conditions and the lack of safe and compassionate care being provided by the replacement nurses hired by Tenet to work during the strike. The charges follow Tenet’s decision to spend more than $100 million to force and prolong the strike, while its managers continued to wage an unlawful campaign to undermine the nurses’ union rights – all to avoid any accountability for ensuring the safe staffing conditions the nurses have sought for more than two years.
Tenet’s propensity for questionable and unlawful behavior is well documented, as the corporation has been subject to fines and other judgements from courts and governmental agencies totaling more than $1.8 billion over the last 20 years alone. A listing of those decisions can be found here. This includes the award in February of $10.6 million to two cardiologists at Tenet-owned Detroit Medical Center after a federal judge upheld an arbitrators’ decision that the hospital and Tenet acted with malice in firing them as retaliation for reporting violations at the facility. Four nurses at a Tenet facility in June of 2020 have also filed $25 million lawsuit against Tenet for alleged wrongful discharge, retaliation against whistleblowers, and intentional and/or reckless infliction of emotional distress, after the nurses reported preventable patient deaths in their emergency department due to understaffing during the height of the COVID crisis. And in February of 2020, Tenet and one of its California hospitals agreed to pay $1.41 million to settle false claims allegations brought by the federal government for knowingly charging Medicare for implanting unnecessary cardiac monitors into patients.
Agreement Scuttled Last Week Over Back to Work Provision and Tenet Unfair Labor Practices
Two weeks ago the nurses had agreed to staffing improvements negotiated throughout the strike and were ready to return to work to provide care, particularly during the current surge caused by the Delta variant, yet a final agreement was scuttled by Tenet when they demanded the nurses accept an unprecedented and punitive back to work provision that is not only unfair to nurses, but its replacement of highly skilled nurses with lesser qualified staff, would undermine all the patient safety gains the parties had negotiated. The hospital’s proposal also called for the nurses to retract all the unfair labor practice charges, opening the door for Tenet to continue its efforts to retaliate against the striking nurses. The nurses are clear that any negotiated Return to Work Agreement must also include a negotiated resolution of any and all unfair labor practice charges the nurses have filed.
To make matters worse, the MNA has continued to uncover evidence revealing that the Hospital has been engaging in unfair labor practices before and during the strike up to and including to this date by means of unlawful threats against striking nurses, retaliation and discrimination towards striking nurses, promises of benefits to non-strikers, and bad faith bargaining tactics, all designed to break the strike and to remove MNA as the nurses’ bargaining agent. This conduct has greatly disturbed the nurses, who are now demanding that any return-to-work agreement must also include resolution of the unfair labor practices and the conduct underlying them.
“We went on strike to achieve safer patient care and can’t go back as long as the hospital’s dangerous return to work agreement denies our most fragile patients the experienced, expert care they deserve,” said Dominique Muldoon, RN, a striking nurse and co-chair of the bargaining unit. “Our members are clear. They are ready to end the strike to provide care once again, but not unless all nurses are returned to their jobs and can do so without fear of abuse because a for profit corporation decided to retaliate against nurses who have been advocating for safer conditions inside our hospital.”
The nurses who Tenet is refusing to guarantee a return to their positions are the same nurses who provided expert care to their community during the worst public health crisis in our nation’s history. They did so for many months under unsafe staffing conditions, with inadequate PPE and no vaccines, which exposed hundreds of nurses to COVID infection, placing all the nurses’ own lives and their families lives in jeopardy every day.
“This was a callous demand at the 11th hour by our CEO in blatant retaliation against the nurses with only one goal, to punish the nurses for our strike, to break our union and thereby silence our voice as advocates for our patients and our community,” said Pellegrino. “This is yet another example of what our nurses have faced for more than two years, why our nurses cast a vote of no confidence against our CEO during the height of the pandemic in May 2020, and why we went on strike and stayed out on strike all this time.”
Background on Negotiations Held in Secret Aug. 16 – 19
The federal mediator had called both parties to the table on Monday at Worcester State University in an attempt to reach an agreement, where the parties negotiated in secret through Thursday, with Tenet walking away from the table without making any counter proposal to continue the process towards a settlement.
In an effort to reach a settlement to end the strike and get back to provide care to the community, the nurses agreed to accept the hospital’s last offer, noting that while not providing all that they wanted, it still provided significant staffing improvements that would allow them to re-enter the hospital with pride in what they accomplished. As is typical with all previous strikes, including the 2000 strike against Tenet Healthcare by MNA, the nurses sought to include a “back to work” provision, which guarantees all nurses who went out on strike the right to return to work in the same position, hours, and shift that they worked prior to the strike and provides a process the parties will follow in recalling the nurses. The goal for the nurses in reaching the agreement was to end the rancor of the past months, and for both parties to begin the work of restoring stability to the facility to provide quality care to the patients at this critical time.
Tenet objected to the provision, providing their own back to work agreement that will result in more than 100 nurses to lose their positions, positions the nurse have held for years, building up extensive experience and expertise. Tenet is insisting on callously displacing these seasoned clinicians with replacements, nearly half of whom were newly graduated or novice nurses, many working in highly specialized areas, such as the maternity unit, where no nurse with that level of experience should be allowed to practice independently.
“For a novice nurse coming onto our maternity unit in the best of times it would take at least a year of orientation to the unit before we would allow any of them to provide care independently,” said Chris Donohue, RN a nurse with 35 years’ experience in maternity care. “To put them in that position is dangerous for the patients and unfair to those nurses, particularly now, when we are dealing with the unique issues presented by COVID-19.”
For example, Tenet also operates a Level IIB Nursery that provides care to fragile newborns, who may be delivered as early as 32 weeks. According to information from the hospital’s web site: “A baby in the Special Care Nursery is typically connected to a variety of medical monitors that allow the staff to know exactly what he or she needs at all times. The SCN staff is comprised of registered nurses specializing in the care of premature and sick infants, and they will explain the purpose of every monitor, tube and test used for your baby.” Under management’s return to work plan, two nurses with more than 40-years of experience will lose their positions to novice nurses with no experience caring for these vulnerable babies, nurses who do not have the extensive training and experience necessary to care for these most vulnerable patients; nurses who may be incapable of spotting subtle changes in a baby’s condition, changes that without specific interventions by the nurse could result in a tragic outcome.
“We would ask the public, who would you rather have delivering or caring for your baby, a nurse with 10 – 40 years’ experience, or a nurse with little or no experience in this highly specialized area? It’s clear that Tenet doesn’t care about your answer, but the striking nurses do, ” Donohue added.
“We have reviewed data provided by the hospital that shows most of these nurses have little or no familiarity with the hospital, the physicians or the patients we serve,” said Muldoon. “Given that there were more than 80 vacancies for nursing positions prior to the strike, and that a number of striking nurses have taken positions at other hospitals over the last several months, there is no reason that the replacement nurses can’t move into one of those positions to augment staffing as the strike nurses are called back to work.”
“What is at stake in this situation is the ability of nurses to advocate for and to care for patients at the most vulnerable time in their lives,” said Marie Ritacco, RN, a member of the nurses negotiating committee and vice president of the MNA. “CEOs come and go, but at the end of the day, nurses are the ones who answer the call light and make the split-second decisions that could save your life. Our union provides us with a protected voice which allows us to fight for you, particularly when a for-profit corporation is willing to sacrifice your safety, as Tenet has done, to boost their stock price for their shareholders.
“We were the nurses in the room with patients gasping their last breaths, holding up an iPad or cell phone to say their final goodbyes to loved ones last year, not anyone wearing a suit from Tenet in Worcester or Dallas,” Ritacco concluded. “We are appalled that they have chosen to cut services this community needs and is threatening us with the loss of our ability to care for you purely out of spite. It is beyond despicable.”
Without an agreement, the strike will continue as the nurses continue to work with the federal mediators to find a way to move the process forward.
For more background on the strike and the issues involved, click here to learn more.